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Power to the Suburbs?
By Michael Khoo, Minnesota Public Radio
April 24, 2001
Part of MPR's online project, The Faces of Minnesota.
Click for audio RealAudio

Minnesota Senate Republicans are the first out of the gate in the redistricting race. Caucus members unveiled a new map of congressional districts, which they say accounts for the explosive growth in Twin Cities suburbs. The proposal combines Minneapolis and St. Paul in one urban district -- creating a new district in the suburbs. The plan also splits northern Minnesota into a far-north district and a central district, rather than the current northeast-northwest divide. Opponents of the plan say it's unfairly crafted to favor Republican candidates.
For more information, see the Legislature's Web site.

THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL ELEMENT of the proposed plan is likely to be the combination of Minneapolis and St. Paul into a single urban core. Sen. Dave Knutson, R-Burnsville, says the merger is the only way to reflect the new demographic reality in which the Twin Cities grew slower than their rapidly expanding neighbors.

"If we were to draw it and keep it as it currently exists with two separate districts, we would end up with urban cores that are dominated by their surrounding suburban communities. We don't think that's what the urban core anticipates," Knutson says.

Knutson says Minneapolis and St. Paul constitute a "community of interest," with shared priorities and similar populations. He also says the new district would be 39-percent minority, making it more likely a non-white Minnesotan could win election.

The proposal is unlikely to make much progress in the DFL-controlled Senate, but House Republicans say they're receptive to the idea. Rep. Erik Paulsen, D-Eden Prairie, chairs the House redistricting committee. He says the House hasn't settled on a plan, but that committee testimony has supported a single urban district.

"This is an attempt to fundamentally destroy the historical tradition in Minnesota of allowing rural Minnesota to have representation in Congress."

- Sen. Larry Pogemiller
"Whether that's in the final bill, we can't say at this point, but we're going to hear all different plans so we can have a fair plan that recognizes those demographic shifts, and this may be one of those options," Paulsen says.

But eliminating an urban district in favor of a new, suburban one could tip congressional representation in the metropolitan area from Democratic to Republican. Senate DFLers oppose the idea. Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Redistricting, says he's also concerned about a plan to reshape the northern districts into a far-north seat and a central-Minnesota district.

"It's fairly obvious that this is an attempt to fundamentally destroy the historical tradition in Minnesota of allowing rural Minnesota to have representation in Congress. I think this leads to a pretty metropolitan-dominated map," Pogemiller says.

But Republicans argue the map meets all the criteria for redistricting: virtually identical populations across districts, preservation of existing county and city borders where possible, and respect for communities of interest. It's that last standard that could prove a sticking point.

"That really is in the eye of the beholder," says Jack Uldrich, who works for the state planning agency and is helping coordinate Gov. Jesse Ventura's redistricting policy. "There are legitimate arguments on various sides of the debate. I'm actually really confident that this is an area where the governor's commission might be able to play a real positive role in sort of airing out the various pros and cons of the idea of communities of interest."

Uldrich says the demographic shift to the suburbs will require serious revision of current district boundaries. The Republican plan is one possibility. But, he says, there are countless others. If no agreement is reached when the Legislature adjourns next month, the courts are likely to step in to ensure new districts are drawn by the 2002 elections. And all sides say they'd rather avoid a lengthy court battle.